Trading gridlock for ... more gridlock

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By Marian Currinder

So far, 54 members of Congress have announced they will not be seeking reelection in November. Most of those leaving are House members and the majority of those heading for doors are Republicans. While 21 of these members are running for higher office, the remaining 33 are retiring. Many of the Republicans who are retiring would have faced tough races in the fall—a factor that certainly contributed to their decisions to call it quits. But another factor looms large: congressional dysfunction.

Rep. Rodney Freylinghuysen (R-NJ), retiring chair of the House Appropriations Committee, recently described his job as “keeping the government open for business” and bemoaned the lack of predictability and stability. The fact that Freylinghuysen is looking forward to spending more time with his two granddaughters, despite both of them “throwing up on him” over the course of one recent weekend, tells you something about the current state of Congress.

Indeed, “years of deepening tribalism and dysfunction have taken their toll” on many departing members. In a recent Politico story, Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL) said, “The Congress I came to was a very bipartisan, get-along place. People knew each other and tried to work together.” Not anymore. “What I will miss least is the current polarization and common refusal to listen to or respect others’ ideas,” said Rep. Sam Johnson (R-TX).

Rep. Charlie Dent (R-PA), who retired May 12 rather than serve out the remainder of his term, said in his farewell speech on the House floor that the “fringe elements” on the far-right and far-left have paralyzed the government because of their inability to compromise. His colleague Rep. Trey Gowdy (R-SC) seems to agree: he said he was leaving Congress because, “I like jobs where facts matter, I like jobs where fairness matters. I like jobs, frankly, where the process matters …”

Aside from the proverbial spending more time with their families, we don’t know what retiring members have planned – and we probably won’t. Despite a protocol for transparency in place since 2007, most House members do not bother filing notices of future employment negotiations with the House Ethics Committee. The system allows for them to decide whether there’s a conflict of interest that should be disclosed while they’re still serving and since 2007, only 17 members have filed such notices. Senate rules prohibit senators from negotiating for lobbying jobs until after their successor is elected.

As this year’s bumper crop of retirees bid good riddance to the Hill’s paralyzing dysfunction, it’s worth considering how some of them will undoubtedly find work perpetuating the very paralysis they profess to loathe – well after they’ve left Congress.

K Street, with its lucrative consulting and lobbying jobs, is a natural home for over 400 former members of Congress. This makes sense: after years of earning an annual salary of $174,000, many former members are eager to cash in on their experience and connections. About one-half of senators and one-third of House members who retired between 1976 and 2012 registered as lobbyists. But as political scientist Tim LaPira and others have noted, lobbying registration figures do not capture the large number of former members who work as consultants (“shadow lobbyists”) at firms that do business with the Hill.

Studies on members who go through the “revolving door” and become lobbyists once they leave the Hill, tend to focus on important questions like which members become lobbyists, who they represent, how much they get paid, and what disparities in representation mean for the public interest. A good deal of work has also looked at issues of transparency and how to better regulate revolving door lobbying.

Mostly missing from this discussion, however, is the recognition of a basic irony: The real outcome of most lobbying is the achievement of nothing. A successful lobbying campaign, in other words, is usually one that maintains the status quo. This means that many members who flee the Hill for K Street escape gridlock only to promote gridlock. Tim LaPira and Herschel Thomas's book on the revolving door notes this paradox of members and staff leaving a Congress that does nothing to then lobby a Congress that does nothing.

In their classic book on lobbying and policy change, Frank Baumgartner, Jeffrey Berry, Marie Hojinacki, David Kimball, and Beth Leech, examine the lobbying efforts on behalf of 98 policy issues over multiple years and find that 60-percent of the time, nothing happens. This lack of action isn’t due to differences in group resources; rather, it can be explained by “an entrenched Washington system with a tremendous bias in favor of the status quo.” For many (deep-pocketed) corporations and trade associations, the less things change, the better. The $100 million lobbying campaign to kill anti-tobacco legislation in 1998 is a classic example.

While this “stalemating” approach to lobbying plays out across a broad swath of federal policy issues, business interests are by far the most invested players. Whether they’re protecting provisions in the tax code, preventing new regulations on their products and services, maintaining current emissions standards, or preserving specific federal programs, the pay-off of nothing changing is usually well worth the billions they spend each year.

Not only do business interests and trade associations spend the most on lobbying to prevent policy change, they also employ the most “revolving door” lobbyists and consultants. As Lee Drutman notes, former members can charge a lot for their lobbying services because the market will bear it. This means they usually wind up working for corporate clients who can afford to pay top dollar.

When it comes to former House members, lobbying firms rank seniority, being a party leader, being a committee chair, and being a member of a powerful committee as highly desirable. This is good news for this year’s retirees, which include at least eight committee chairs, a lot of seniority, and a Speaker of the House! As for former Senators, they’re all desirable by virtue of having served in the upper chamber. 

There are multiple parties to the gridlock that plagues Washington; whether that’s good or bad for members depends on which side of the revolving door they’re on. It’s a safe bet that some of the members retiring at the end of the 115th will find a home on K Street, and that many who now bemoan the “do-nothing” Congress will (ironically) be rewarded for promoting the status quo.

Marian Currinder is a senior fellow with the R Street Institute’s Governance Project and editor of the LegBranch.com blog.